Boris Johnson has defended his decision to cut Universal Credit (UC), despite a warning from six former Tory work and pensions secretaries that this would “damage living standards, health and opportunities”.
In April last year, as the Covd pandemic hit, the government increased the benefit by £20-a-week to avoid families being left destitute. This was extended in March 2021 by another six months.
On Wednesday the government confirmed the benefit it would soon be reduced.
Appearing before the Commons liaison committee of senior MPs, Johnson said he wanted there to be a “different emphasis” and his “instincts” were to cut UC.
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation anti-poverty charity has warned removing the uplift in UC payments risks forcing 500,000 people into poverty.
Asked if he accepted this could cause hardship to many people, the prime minister said: “I think that the best way forward is to get people into higher wage, higher skilled jobs.
“That’s the ambition of this government and if you ask me to make a choice between more welfare or better, higher paid jobs, I’m going to go for better, higher paid jobs.”
When asked if the government would review the policy between now and September, Johnson added: “Of course we keep everything under constant review but I’ve given you a pretty clear steer about what my instincts are.”
Six former Tory work and pensions secretaries, Iain Duncan Smith, Stephen Crabb, Damian Green, David Gauke, Esther McVey and Amber Rudd, have signed a joint letter to chancellor Rishi Sunak urging him to abandon the cut.
Duncan Smith, the former Tory leader who also came up with UC, said the benefit system had been “one of the greatest, but unremarked, successes of the government’s response to Covid”.
“Universal Credit has held up well as a system for distributing money to those who need it, and the extra £20 added to has been essential in allowing people to live with dignity,” he said in the letter.
To cut it, he added, would “damage living standards, health and opportunities”.
Torsten Bell, chief executive of the Resolution Foundation economics think-tank, said the decision was “bad economics, as well as bad politics”.
He said: “This huge cut will fall not on the families that have amassed large savings during the crisis, but on poorer families who have been more likely to take on additional debt.
“There are difficult trade-offs with all major spending decisions, but taking a gamble with family finances and the strength of the recovery this autumn is the wrong choice.”
Jonathan Reynolds, Labour’s shadow secretary of state for work and pensions, added: “There is near universal opposition to this cut, including from prominent Conservatives.
“It is time the Government saw sense, backed struggling families and cancelled their cut to Universal Credit.”